How Batman’s Silly 1960s Series Saved The Dark Knight

It’s difficult to think of a superhero who’s had a greater cultural impact than Batman. He’s redefined how Hollywood thinks about blockbusters, he’s the anchor of one of the best cartoons ever made, he was the first superhero to crack a billion dollars at the box office, and he’s the centerpiece of DC’s media empire. But none of it would exist without Batman, the live-action ABC series (and the resulting film which premiered 50 years ago on July 30) and saved the Caped Crusader from obscurity.

Prior to the 1960s, Batman’s presence was largely limited to comic books. Aside from two film serials and the occasional appearance on the Superman radio show, you only found Batman either in the funny pages or on the newstand. By the mid-1960s, Batman was so poorly off, DC’s long-forgotten books starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis outsold him.

In response, DC editor Julius Schwartz drastically revamped the book in 1964: He threw out the science fiction elements and put Carmine Infantino on art. Infantino had a cleaner, more realistic style than previous Batman artists such as Dick Sprang and he completely redefined the book. The result was an action series with a penchant for the ridiculous. Batman often solved mysteries that made little sense using solutions or tools that made even less sense, and often found himself stuck in elaborate death-traps. It is, to modern eyes, all a bit silly, but it sold: By 1965, Batman was back on the charts.

The idea of a Batman TV series had been in the works since 1961, but stalled repeatedly. It was saved by ABC executive Harve Bennett, who saw the potential of a series (in a nice bit of nerd symmetry, Bennett would go on to save Star Trek in the ’80s). Bennett saw the popularity of a roadshow of the old serials and hits like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and thought Batman would be perfect for the network.

William Dozier, the producer Bennett handed the job of making a Batman series, decided the only way to go was to play the comic books absolutely straight but, in his words, “with a certain elegance and style that it would be funny… that it would be so corny and so bad that it would be funny.” That choice manifested brilliantly with Adam West’s deadpan square act and Burt Ward’s boyish enthusiasm. He’d keep the deathtraps, the mysteries, the clichés, all of it, and do it in earnest, giving the kids something to enjoy while offering adults something a bit knowing. West and Ward in particular don’t get their due; West’s ability to say absolutely anything with a straight face leads to some of the funniest jokes on the show, and remains a huge part of its appeal.

If you haven’t sat down to watch the show, it remains surprisingly, and genuinely, funny. This was an era where Gomer Pyle was a comedic force, and the show looks genuinely ahead of its time in that respect; you can watch it for the knowing winks, but it doesn’t get in the way of depicting what comics of the time were like. Helping matters was Dozier and Bennett stacking the deck talented guest stars that ranged from Cesar Romero’s Joker to Liberace to the underappreciated Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. Everyone is having a blast in front of the camera, and the energy is infectious. More importantly, though, it’s a good-natured show that embraces every last silly deathtrap and Bat-gadget.

The show’s often accused of mocking comic books, but believe it or not, Batman might be the first faithful adaptation of comic books ever committed to film. Several episodes of Batman’s first season are directly adapted from the comic books on the stands, and the rest reflect the spirit of what was happening at DC at the time. This was thanks to Lorenzo Semple, Jr., a playwright who went on to an odd film career see-sawing between serious works like Papillion and Three Days of The Condor, and camp classics like Flash Gordon.

Nobody quite expected the show to be the hit it was. In 1966, fully a third of audiences with televisions tuned into Batman twice a week. There was an explosion of Bat-merchandise, to the point where Adam West was stuffed into the recording booth to try and land a hit single, and Fox quickly brought the series to movie screens. In response, the comics changed to reflect the show, with the most enduring change being the introduction of Batgirl, and Batman became the best-selling character in DC’s stable.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. The show was off the air a little more than two years after it began, and Batman began to fade with it. Faced with salvaging the Caped Crusader yet again, the newly assigned creative team of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams pushed hard against the campy elements of the show, creating a Batman who was a grim reflection of the rising crime and social struggles DC’s own employees saw on the streets of New York every day. In turn, that gritty, street-level approach has defined Batman ever since, leading him to massive success on the stands and at the box office.

For decades, the show was resented for presenting comic books as campy and childish, and it wasn’t until very recently DC began to embrace the show’s legacy. But without the show to put Batman in the minds of millions, and give creators and filmmakers something to define themselves against, we wouldn’t have the Batman we have today. 1989’s Batman, the ’70s comics that would form the roots of Batman: The Animated Series, The Dark Knight Returns, all owe a debt to the ’60s series.

And one can argue that whatever negative effects, such as they are, have worn off. Marvel tops the box office, Batman has an Oscar-winning movie, and comic books are taken seriously as an artistic medium. The Batman TV series has a part, however modest, in that, and it deserves the credit and deserves to be appreciated for its own weird charms.

Post originally published on January 12, 2016